The Secrets to Creating Award-Winning Sand Sculptures

Before I unveil the secrets to making Award-Winning Sand Sculptures, I need to roll back the clock one year.

Last year I participated in the Piccolo Spoleto Sand Sculpting Contest for the first time.  LS3P had put together at least 1 team for the Sand Sculpting Contest for about 10 years.  And these LS3P teams had consistently won prizes including several 1st Prize trophies.

Last year I decided I wanted a piece of this sand sculpting glory!

Instead of doing the smart thing and joining one of the existing experienced teams, I decided to organize my own LS3P team.  My team members were all newcomers to the art of sand sculpting.  We had made a few sand castles in our day, we were all trained architects, we were in good physical hard could it be?

As the competition approached we decided that we (more like me) would do some good ol'fashion trash-talking to the other LS3P team.  As the young guys we figured we had a good chance at upsetting the older veteran LS3P sand sculpting team. hard could it be?

Oh,were we wrong...really...really wrong.  

To say we sucked, would be an understatement.  Our sand sculpting performance was down right pitiful.  So pitiful that I won't even show you a photo of what we created...nor tell you what we created.  Seriously.....It was sad.

And the other 'veteran' LS3P team..............They were victorious winning 1st Prize in the Most Creative Category. 

Well that was last year.

With this year's competition approaching,  I did what any highly competitive dude does when faced with athletic adversity and given a shot at redemption..............I joined the other much better allstar LS3P team!

Yep, I joined the other team.  Like when Lebron joined Shaq and D'Wade in Miami.  Except I suck at sand sculpting so it would be more joining Shaq and D'Wade in Miami.  I suck at basketball also. 

Now I know what your thinking...what about the other guys?  How could I ditch my old teammates?

Before I joined the good team, I asked my old teammates if they were up for another go at it. One by one, they each declined.  It was pretty sad.  Everyone was clearly traumatized from our horrendous performance last year 

I still had some fight left.  And the good guys were looking for a new member.  So I joined the good guys.

The Good Guys Team

Brian and Dan are the regulars.  They have many sand sculpting trophies to their name. Bryan Beerman is a new hotshot intern at LS3P.  Funny thing about Bryan being on our team. He wasn't originally supposed to be on our team.  Our original 4th member never showed up and shall remain nameless.  But more on that later.

The Goal: Create a sand sculpture of Mayor Joe Riley

A week before the competition Brian sent out an email asking for sculpture ideas.  Dan had our first and only idea.  Dan suggested we do something to commemorate Mayor Joe Riley since this is his last and 40th year as Mayor of Charleston. That is no typo.  40 years!

Mayor Riley is an icon in Charleston.  Much of Charleston's success can be chalked up to Mayor Riley's leadership.

So Dan suggested we do something about Mayor Riley and Brian answered, "let's do a portrait bust of Mayor Riley."

I didn't answer anything, but in my head I was thinking..."no f*cking way we can pull that off!" But I was the new guy and had no ideas of my own.  So I just kept my mouth shut and went with it.

So here was the picture we decided to sculpt:

Mayor Joe Riley

Piece of cake right?

The Competition Canvas

This plot of sand would be our canvas for the next 3 hours.  The competition starts at 9am and ends at noon.  3 hours of action packed sculpting.  Where's the 4th man we asked?

Our Weapons

Funny thing about our original 4th member.  He has an arsenal of tools.  In fact, he once joked about owning the entire Harbor Freight Catalogue.  So the Friday before the competition a team email goes out about the tools everyone needs to bring.  The 4th man responded to the email that he had everything.  I figured he was unloading all of his tools which is why he was late.

The Power of the Grid

In my last post about painting I recommended using a grid when starting large paintings.  We used a grid to get us started with laying out our sculpture.

Dig, dig and dig some more.

The first hour or so is dedicated to digging sand.  Most sand sculptures are made from mounding up a ton of sand and then carving away at the mound.  Digging and piling up sand is very tiring work.  Especially when you have a bunch of knuckle-head architects who decide to use the entire allotted space.

The Waterboy

For some reason I became the designated water gopher.  It is important to keep the sand wet and compacted while you pile.  It makes it easier to sculpt.

One Hour In

At the time of this photo we were about one hour in.  Two hours left.  And still no 4th man.  I was already pretty exhausted from gophering water and shoveling.  

One thing I'd like to point out about our 4th member.  He is a big dude.  I'd say he is the size of a college outside linebacker.  I guess I'll never know, but I'd bet that dude could move some sand.

The Show Must Go On

We were a member down, but had to keep moving.  The clock was ticking.  We had some good sized mounds, now it was time to get our sculpt on.

Wait...why did we decide to sculpt a face?

Brian focused on sculpting Mayor Riley's hands and a scroll that said "40 Years of Joe." Dan and I began work on the head.  Starting with the nose, then the mouth, and eventually the eyes.

After about 15 minutes of working on the face, I was coming to the realization that this was going to be a major challenge.

I mumbled some sort of expletive....Dan overheard my 4 letter zinger and said "yeah...I knew this is going to be hard!"

11:15.  45 Minutes Left

It was literally heating up.  I was constantly taking off my hat and sunglasses to dry my face.  I was a good boy and applied lots of sun tan lotion.  And now that sun tan lotion was dripping down my face and stinging my eyes.  I swear.......that is why I was crying!

I was having a very hard time sculpting Mayor Riley's face.  It was nearly impossible to get a good view of the face, so accuracy was very difficult.  Time was running out.  People kept walking by and asking what we were sculpting.

We were all struggling and seemed to be going down in flames.  Time was running out.  The following thoughts were going through my head: 

"This looks more like Mr. Potato Head with Groucho Marx Glasses than Mayor Riley. " 

"Last year was a sign....I am not meant for sand sculpting."

"I am supposed to be a decent artist.  And I focus on portrait art.  Why can't I do this!"

"I was really looking forward to writing a blog about this event...No way will I write about this now."

Bryan Beerman to the rescue!

So our 4th member never showed up.  Apparently he thought the event was on Sunday. This was pretty fishy since we had that email chain about the tools................very fishy.

Bryan actually showed up around 10:30.  He gave us a much needed boost.  We were all pretty exhausted and frustrated.  Bryan was just happy to be there.  He jumped in and made some valuable contributions.

11:30 - 12:00 - Finish Strong!

Our team kept at it for the full 3 hours and never gave up.  Some magic happened in that last 30 minutes.  The addition of the glasses and ears really helped sell the Mayor Riley idea. Bryan and Brian did an awesome job with the scroll and hands.  And maybe writing "40 Years of Joe" helped sell the idea as well...........just a little!  

So maybe it wasn't an exact Mayor Riley replica, but we hoped that the Judges would give us brownie points for the great idea.  And at the very least our sculpture was impressive in terms of scale.

We began to joke that maybe this year they would have a special Mayor Joe Riley Award and we would be a shoe in.

At noon shovels go down and the judges spend an hour walking around and scoring the sculptures.  We used this time to take a dip and check out the other sculptures.

Here are a few of the sculptures I got a chance to photograph.  

My apologies to anybody I left out. 


Jaws 40

Sandy Baby

Buried Treasure

Title Unknown


Tommy the Two-Tone Turtle


Spoleto Scrabble

Doesn't that kid sculpture look super real?

I mean it is uncanny.  It even moved.

Where are my legs?

I would have named this one "Everything is Awesome!" Congrats to my colleague David Burt and his family!  David is a long time veteran at this contest and always brings home the bacon.

Eat More Tacos!

Sea Monster

Pandering to the Judges

During the judging hour the judges spend a couple minutes with each sculpture.  This is an opportunity to explain the team's idea and give it one last try!  We did our best to sell our great idea! And tried to gloss over the execution.

The Prize Ceremony

Now the moment we have all been waiting for.  We were in much better spirits at this point. Lots of joking around.  We hoped that they had a special award called "Great Idea, Poor Execution."  Or "Best Joe Riley sculpture."

Chris Tindal is one of the organizers of the event and announced the winners.

Most Creative Awards

The 3 prizes for most creative sculpture were given.

3rd Prize - Sandy Baby

2nd Prize - Buried Treasure

1st Prize - Piccolo Spumante

Nothing for us.

Best Architectural

The 3 prizes for best architectural were given.

3rd Prize - Spoleto Scrabble

2nd Prize - Bones

1st Prize - Where Are My Legs?

Nothing for us.  A little ironic don't you think?

Best of Show

This was the last category, so our last chance. 

3rd Prize - Sea Monster. 

Now we figured the 2nd Prize was going to be our last chance.  There was this really awesome Dock sculpture that had not been awarded yet.  It was definitely better than ours so a 2nd Prize would be our best chance.

Chris Tindal announces 2nd Prize goes to ............................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................................ Jaws 40!

I look at my teammates and we all start to shake our heads.  Thats all folks!  No prize for us.

But Wait!

Chris Tindal announces "we only have 2 prizes left!"

2 prizes!  We thought there was only 1 left!

So your saying there's a chance!

And the 1st prize for Best of Show goes to 40 Years of Joe!

Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!

We did it!  The ultimate come-back story.  Or at least thats how I'm telling it!

That awesome dock I mentioned:

Best of Show - Overall - Dock

How awesome is that Dock sculpture?  It is hard to see but they actually put water in front of the dock.  Well done!

We are nerds!

We got a bunch of gift cards and 1st Prize Cutting Boards for our award.

So what about all those secrets that I promised?

5.  Scale is always impressive.  Go big or go home!

4.  Technical sculpting ability is a huge plus.

3.  Creativity is king.

2.  Choosing a subject matter that is timely and relevant can bump you up a notch.  Like choosing Mayor Riley, or integrating Piccolo Spoleto into your sculpture.

1.  The biggest lesson is that there are a variety of ways to grab the judges attention.  This is an amateur contest so the judges aren't looking for perfection.  Embellish in certain areas to overcome your weaknesses.

My hat goes off to all of the sand sculptors.  There were some very imaginative and impressive sculptures built.

Thank you to Chris Tindal and his band of Competition Organizers.  27 years is impressive!

A special thanks to my teammates.  Even our original 4th member.  Without his blunder we would not have had Bryan Beerman's saving grace.

Here are a couple other articles about the competition:

Gallery:  Piccolo Spoleto Sand Sculpting Competition - Post and Courier 


So which sculpture was your favorite?

Steve Ramos, AIA

Want to see more Ramos art?  Check out Ramos Art and the Power of the Blank Canvas

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